Yet another brilliant post by Ethan. (I think I’m going to turn that into a keyboard macro. I’ll just have to type ^EthanTalk and that opening sentence will get filled in.) It’s a reflection on the reaction to his piece in the Atlantic about advertising as the Net’s original sin, and the focus on his “confession” that he wrote the code for the Net’s first popup ad.
But I think I actually disagree with one of his key points. In other words, I’m very likely wrong. Nevertheless…
Ethan explains why the Net has come to rely on advertising money:
We had a failure of imagination. And the millions of smart young programmers and businesspeople spending their lives trying to get us to click on ads are also failing to imagine something better. We’re all starting from the same assumptions: everything on the internet is free, we pay with our attention, and our attention is worth more if advertisers know more about who we are and what we do, we start business with money from venture capitalists who need businesses to grow explosively if they’re going to make money.
He recommends that we question our assumptions so we can come up with more imaginative solutions.
I agree with Ethan’s statement of the problem, and admire his ability to put it forward with such urgency. But it seems to me that the problem is less a failure of imagination than the success of the power of incumbent systems.Is access to the Net in exactly the wrong hands because of the failure of someone to imagine a better way, or because of the structural corruption of capitalism? Similarly, why are we failing to slow global warming in an appreciable way? (Remember when Pres. Reagan took down the solar panels Pres. Carter had installed on the White House?) Why are elections still disproportionately determined by the wealthy? In each of these cases, imagination has lost to entrenched systems. We had innovative ways of accessing the Net, we’ve had many great ideas for slowing global warming, we have had highly imaginative attempts to get big money out of politics, and they all failed to one degree or another. Thuggish systems steal great ideas’ lunch money. Over and over and over.
Ethan of course recognizes this. But he ties these failures to failures of the imagination when one could just as well conclude that imagination is no match for corrupt systems — especially since we’ve now gone through a period when imagination was unleashed with a force never before seen, and yet the fundamental systems haven’t budged. This seems to be Larry Lessig’s conclusion, since he moved from CreativeCommons — an imaginative, disruptive approach — to a super-Pac that plays on the existing field, but plays for the Good Guys ‘n’ Gals.
Likewise, one could suggest that the solution — if there is one — is not more imagination, but more organizing. More imagination will only work if the medium still is pliable. Experience suggests it never was as pliable as some of us thought.
But the truth is that I really don’t know. I don’t fully believe the depressing “bad thugs beat good ideas” line I’ve just adumbrated. I certainly agree that it’s turning out to be much harder to overturn the old systems than I’d thought twenty or even five years ago. But I also think that we’ve come much further than we often realize. I take it as part of my job to remind people of that, which is why I am almost always on the chirpier side of these issues. And I certainly think that good ideas can be insanely disruptive, starting with the Net and the Web, and including Skype, eBay, Open Source, maps and GPS, etc.
So, while I don’t want to pin the failure of the Net on our failure of imagination, I also still have hope that bold acts of imagination can make progress, that our ability to iterate at scale can create social formations that are new in the world, and that this may be a multi-generational fight.
I therefore come out of Ethan’s post with questions: (1) What about this age made it possible even to think that imagination could disrupt our most entrenched systems? (2) What makes some ideas effectively disruptive, and why do other equally imaginative good ideas fail? And what about unimaginative ideas that make a real difference? The Birmingham bus boycott was not particularly imaginative, but it sure packed a wallop. (3) What can we do to make it easier for great acts of imagination to become real?
For me, #1 has to do with the Internet. (Color me technodeterminist.) I don’t have anything worthwhile to say about #2. And I still have hope that the answer to #3 has something to do with the ability of billions of people to make common cause— and, more powerfully, to iterate together — over the Net. Obviously #3 also needs regulatory reform to make sure the Internet remains at least a partially open ecosystem.
So, I find myself in deep sympathy with the context of what Ethan describes so well and so urgently. But I don’t find the rhetoric of imagination convincing.
Despite the claims of some — and unfortunately some of these some run the companies that provide the US with Internet access — there are n reasons why we need truly high-speed, high-capacity Internet access, where n = everything we haven’t invented yet.
If we had truly high-speed, high-capacity Internet access, protesters in Ferguson might have each worn a GoPro video camera, or even just all pressed “Record” on their smartphones, and those of us not in Ferguson could have dialed among them to see what’s happening. In fact, it’s pretty likely someone would have written an app that treats co-located video streams as a single source to be made sense of, giving us fish-eye, fly-eye perspectives anywhere we want to focus: a panopticon for social good.
This week there were two out-of-the-park posts by Berkman folk: Ethan Zuckerman on advertising as the Net’s original sin, and Zeynep Tufecki on the power of the open Internet as demonstrated by coverage of the riots in Ferguson. Each provides a view on whether the Net is a failed promise. Each is brilliant and brilliantly written.
Zeynep on Ferguson
Zeynep, who has written with wisdom and insight on the role of social media in the Turkish protests (e.g., here and here), looks at how Twitter brought the Ferguson police riots onto the national agenda and how well Twitter “covered” them. But those events didn’t make a dent in Facebook’s presentation of news. Why? she asks.
Twitter is an open platform where anyone can post whatever they want. It therefore reflects our interests — although no medium is a mere reflection. FB, on the other hand, uses algorithms to determine what it thinks our interests are … except that its algorithms are actually tuned to get us to click more so that FB can show us more ads. (Zeynep made that point about an early and errant draft of my CNN.com commentary on the FB mood experiment. Thanks, Zeynep!) She uses this to make an important point about the Net’s value as a medium the agenda of which is not set by commercial interests. She talks about this as “Net Neutrality,” extending it from its usual application to the access providers (Comcast, Verizon and their small handful of buddies) to those providing important platforms such as Facebook.
She concludes (but please read it all!):
How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.
And despite a lot of dismal developments, this fight is far from over, and its enemy is cynicism and dismissal of this reality.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What happens to #Ferguson affects what happens to Ferguson.
Yup yup yup. This post is required reading for all of the cynics who would impress us with their wake-up-and-smell-the-shitty-coffee pessimism.
Ethan on Ads
Ethan cites a talk by Maciej Ceglowski for the insight that “we’ve ended up with surveillance as the default, if not sole, internet business model.” Says Ethan,
I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services.
Since Internet ads are more effective as a business model than as an actual business, companies are driven ever more frantically to gather customer data in order to hold out the hope of making their ads more effective. And there went out privacy. (This is a very rough paraphrase of Ethan’s argument.)
Ethan pays more than lip service to the benefits — promised and delivered — of the ad-supported Web. But he points to four rather devastating drawbacks, include the distortions caused by algorithmic filtering that Zeynep warns us about. Then he discusses what we can do about it.
I’m not going to try to summarize any further. You need to read this piece. And you will enjoy it. For example, betcha can’t guess who wrote the code for the world’s first pop-up ads. Answer: Ethan .
Also recommended: Jeff Jarvis’ response and Mathew Ingram’s response to both. I myself have little hope that advertising can be made significantly better, where “better” means being unreservedly in the interests of “consumers” and sufficiently valuable to the advertisers. I’m of course not confident about this, and maybe tomorrow someone will come up with the solution, but my thinking is based on the assumption that the open Web is always going to be a better way for us to discover what we care about because the native building material of the Web is in fact what we find mutually interesting.
Read both these articles. They are important contributions to understanding the Web We Want.
, echo chambers
, net neutrality
, open access
, social media
Tagged with: advertising
• net neutrality
• social media
Date: August 15th, 2014 dw
Dan Brickley points to this incredibly prescient article by Tim Berners-Lee from 1992. The World Wide Web he gets the bulk of the credit for inventing was thriving at CERN where he worked. Scientists were linking to one another’s articles without making anyone type in a squirrely Internet address. Why, over a thousand articles were hyperlinked.
And on this slim basis, Tim outlines the fundamental challenges we’re now living through. Much of the world has yet to catch up with insights he derived from the slightest of experience.
May the rest of us have even a sliver of his genius and a heaping plateful of his generosity.
Categories: free culture
, net neutrality
Tagged with: history
Date: August 9th, 2014 dw
The debate over whether municipalities should be allowed to provide Internet access has been heating up. Twenty states ban it. Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has said he wants to “preempt” those laws. Congress is maneuvering to extend the ban nationwide.
Jim Baller, who has been writing about the laws, policies, and economics of network deployment for decades, has found an eerie resonance of this contemporary debate. Here’s a scan of the table of contents of a 1906 (yes, 1906) issue of Moody’s that features a symposium on “Municipal Ownership and Operation.”
Click image to enlarge
The Moody’s articles are obviously not talking about the Internet. They’re talking about the electric grid.
In a 1994 (yes, 1994) article published just as the Clinton administration (yes, Clinton) was developing principles for the deployment of the “information superhighway,” Jim wrote that if we want the far-reaching benefits foreseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and they were amazingly prescient (but why can’t I find the report online??)), then we ought to learn four things from the deployment of the electric grid in the 1880s and 1890s:
First, the history of the electric power industry teaches that one cannot expect private profit-maximizing firms to provide “universal service” or anything like it in the early years (or decades) of their operations, when the allure of the most profitable markets is most compelling.
Second, the history of the electric power industry teaches that opening the doors to anyone willing to provide critical public services can be counterproductive and that it is essential to watch carefully the growth of private firms that enter the field. If such growth is left unchecked, the firms may become so large and complex that government institutions can no longer control or even understand them. Until government eventually catches up, the public may suffer incalculable injury.
Third, the history of the electric power industry teaches that monopolists will use all means available to influence the opinions of lawmakers and the public in their favor and will sometimes have frightening success
Fourth, and most important, the history of the electric power industry teaches that the presence or threat of competition from the public sector is one of the best and surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises involved in the delivery of critical public services.
Learn from history? Repeat it? Or intervene as citizens to get the history we want? I’ll take door number 3, please.
Google self-driving cars are presumably programmed to protect their passengers. So, when a traffic situation gets nasty, the car you’re in will take all the defensive actions it can to keep you safe.
But what will robot cars be programmed to do when there’s lots of them on the roads, and they’re networked with one another?
We know what we as individuals would like. My car should take as its Prime Directive: “Prevent my passengers from coming to harm.” But when the cars are networked, their Prime Directive well might be: “Minimize the amount of harm to humans overall.” And such a directive can lead a particular car to sacrifice its humans in order to keep the total carnage down. Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics don’t provide enough guidance when the robots are in constant and instantaneous contact and have fragile human beings inside of them.
It’s easy to imagine cases. For example, a human unexpectedly darts into a busy street. The self-driving cars around it rapidly communicate and algorithmically devise a plan that saves the pedestrian at the price of causing two cars to engage in a Force 1 fender-bender and three cars to endure Force 2 minor collisions…but only if the car I happen to be in intentionally drives itself into a concrete piling, with a 95% chance of killing me. All other plans result in worse outcomes, where “worse” refers to some scale that weighs monetary damages, human injuries, and human deaths.
Or, a broken run-off pipe creates a dangerous pool of water on the highway during a flash storm. The self-driving cars agree that unless my car accelerates and rams into a concrete piling, all other joint action results in a tractor trailing jack-knifing, causing lots of death and destruction. Not to mention The Angelic Children’s Choir school bus that would be in harm’s way. So, the swarm of robotic cars makes the right decision and intentionally kills me.
In short, the networking of robotic cars will change the basic moral principles that guide their behavior. Non-networked cars are presumably programmed to be morally-blind individualists trying to save their passengers without thinking about others, but networked cars will probably be programmed to support some form of utilitarianism that tries to minimize the collective damage. And that’s probably what we’d want. Isn’t it?
But one of the problems with utilitarianism is that there turns out to be little agreement about what counts as a value and how much it counts. Is saving a pedestrian more important than saving a passenger? Is it always right try to preserve human life, no matter how unlikely it is that the action will succeed and no matter how many other injuries it is likely to result in? Should the car act as if its passenger has seat-belted him/herself in because passengers should do so? Should the cars be more willing to sacrifice the geriatric than the young, on the grounds that the young have more of a lifespan to lose? And won’t someone please think about the kids m— those cute choir kids?
We’re not good at making these decisions, or even at having rational conversations about them. Usually we don’t have to, or so we tell ourselves. For example, many of the rules that apply to us in public spaces, including roads, optimize for fairness: everyone waits at the same stop lights, and you don’t get to speed unless something is relevantly different about your trip: you are chasing a bad guy or are driving someone who urgently needs medical care.
But when we are better able control the circumstances, fairness isn’t always the best rule, especially in times of distress. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of consensus around the values that would enable us to make joint decisions. We fall back to fairness, or pretend that we can have it all. Or we leave it to experts, as with the rules that determine who gets organ transplants. It turns out we don’t even agree about whether it’s morally right to risk soldiers’ lives to rescue a captured comrade.
Fortunately, we don’t have to make these hard moral decisions. The people programming our robot cars will do it for us.
Imagine a time when the roadways are full of self-driving cars and trucks. There are some good reasons to think that that time is coming, and coming way sooner than we’d imagined.
Imagine that Google remains in the lead, and the bulk of the cars carry their brand. And assume that these cars are in networked communication with one another.
Can we assume that Google will support Networked Road Neutrality, so that all cars are subject to the same rules, and there is no discrimination based on contents, origin, destination, or purpose of the trip?
Or would Google let you pay a premium to take the “fast lane”? (For reasons of network optimization the fast lane probably wouldn’t actually be a designated lane but well might look much more like how frequencies are dynamically assigned in an age of “smart radios.”) We presumably would be ok with letting emergency vehicles go faster than the rest of the swarm, but how about letting the rich go faster by programming the robot cars to give way when a car with its “Move aside!” bit is on?
Let’s say Google supports a strict version of Networked Road Neutrality. But let’s assume that Google won’t be the only player in this field. Suppose Comcast starts to make cars, and programs them to get ahead of the cars that choose to play by the rules. Would Google cars take action to block the Comcast cars from switching lanes to gain a speed advantage — perhaps forming a cordon around them? Would that be legal? Would selling a virtual fast lane on a public roadway be legal in the first place? And who gets to decide? The FCC?
One thing is sure: It’ll be a golden age for lobbyists.
Here’s a fantastic 11-minute video from Vi Hart that explains Net Neutrality and more.
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: explainers
• net neutrality
Date: May 8th, 2014 dw
Pardon my brevity (I’m traveling), but if you care about preserving the Internet as a place where innovation isn’t squashed by the inertia of the incumbents, then let FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler know that his proposed “Net Neutrality” policy is a non-starter. [Ars Technica] [WaPo] [Mashable] [NY Times] [Wheeler’s response, via Verge]
Here are the email addresses of the four commissioners + Wheeler who are eagerly awaiting your opinion. Public response matters.
Scott Bradner, one of the shapers of the Internet, wrote to a mailing list today:
It seems to me that the value of “fast lanes” only comes when there is enough congestion to mean that the normal lane is not useful –
Maybe the ISPs will have an incentive to ensure that the normal service sucks.
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: fcc
Date: April 24th, 2014 dw
I just posted at Medium.com about why it’s important to remember the difference between the Net and the Web. Here’s the beginning:
A note to NPR and other media that have been reporting on “the 25th anniversary of the Internet”: NO, IT’S NOT. It’s the 25th anniversary of the Web. The Internet is way older than that. And the difference matters.
The Internet is a set of protocols?—?agreements?—?about how information will be sliced up, sent over whatever media the inter-networked networks use, and reassembled when it gets there. The World Wide Web uses the Internet to move information around. The Internet by itself doesn’t know or care about Web pages, browsers, or the hyperlinks we’ve come to love. Rather, the Internet enables things like the World Wide Web, email, Skype, and much much more to be specified and made real. By analogy, the Internet is like an operating system, and the Web, Skype, and email are like applications that run on top of it.
This is not a technical quibble. The difference between the Internet and the Web matters more than ever for at least two reasons.
Continued at Medium.com…
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: internet
Date: March 15th, 2014 dw
The experts I follow on the topic of Net Neutrality were pretty convinced that the FCC’s tepid NN policy would be struck down for just the reasons that it was. I have a few reactions:
1. Ack! The access providers (who have confused themselves with the Internet itself) are now free to block what they want and to charge sites what they want for “premium service.” But we can trust the unregulated market to do what’s best because capitalism. Yup. Unbridled greed never goes wrong.
2. Now the FCC has an opportunity to get it right. I’m about to run for a plane, so if I try to explain this without checking some sources ‘n’ sites, I’ll just get it wrong. But google yourself some “Net Neutrality” and “Title II” and you’ll find someone who can explain it better than I could even if I were given infinite leisure.
3. I have friends who are deep experts, who love the Open Internet, and who think Net Neutrality is a bad concept because it can’t be defined perfectly, and because the Net always discriminates among packets in various ways: routers decide which packets go into which queues, anda t the other end of the stack Content Delivery Networks let big companies pay to get their content closer to you, etc. Yeah yeah. So, take the list of depredations we customers will now be subject to, and imagine the policy that prevents them. That’s Net Neutrality at the policy level.If you prefer to call it an Anti-Plundering Policy, I won’t argue with you.
[Some random sources quickly scooped up:
Gotta go. Long live the open Internet…but only if we make it so.
Categories: net neutrality
Tagged with: net neuttrality
Date: January 14th, 2014 dw
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